"Another thing that has impressed us is the quality of people that we were referred to outside of the company. These were of the highest caliber of people. Living in a Keystone neighborhood has made for a most pleasurable retirement."

Sincerely,
George and Carol

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Home builder credits research for putting it on

The housing boom in recent years has fattened the bottom lines of many area home builders, perhaps none more than Lamar Crowell Jr.

Through a combination of studious market analysis and old-fashioned family business alliances, the 37-year-old head of Keystone Homes LLC has staked his claim as the Augusta area's biggest home builder.

In a city where most builders construct about two dozen homes a year, Keystone is on track to build 270 this year.

Although most builders focus on specific parts of town, Keystone has neighborhoods stretching from Grovetown to North Augusta. The 8-year-old company also was the first Augusta builder to venture into Aiken.

This month Keystone was listed No. 11 on Builder magazine's Fast Track 2003 list of the 100 fastest-growing home builders in the nation, based on sales growth during the past three years.

Keystone is dwarfed by major national builders, multibillion-dollar companies such as Pulte Homes Inc. and Centex Corp., but it has used many of the giants' practices to create a business model that this year is expected to generate $37 million in sales.

"I hate to use the word 'machine,"' Mr. Crowell said, "but we have refined our process of building a home."

That process involves controlling the entire development, from the time it is vacant land until after the keys are handed to the buyer.

Most builders purchase construction-ready lots from development companies, assemble and organize workers (or subcontractors) to build the home and then hire a real estate company to market it.

For Keystone, the process is more fluid.

THE COMPANY has family ties to Crowell & Co., a land-development firm owned by Mr. Crowell's father, Otis Lamar Crowell Sr. The companies are separate corporations but the family connection ensures that Keystone gets the best price for its lots.

Acquiring land and deciding what type homes to put on it are made less risky by the two companies' close communication. Keystone's Deodar Plantation in Aiken and Walnut Grove in North Augusta - designed for first-time buyers and "move-ups" - are examples of the right product in the right place, Mr. Crowell said.

"We study the market and try to find the gaps," he said. "We saw a gap in Aiken, where there wasn't a lot of homes in the $110,000-to-$140,000 range." When it comes time for the sale, Keystone has an exclusive arrangement with the market's biggest real estate broker, Meybohm Realtors. The relationship began when Crowell & Co. sold its residential sales arm to Meybohm in 1995.

Bill Boatman, Meybohm's senior vice president, said the company likes working with Keystone because its neighborhoods are well-planned and because of its customer service.

Making it easy for real estate agents is central to the company's growth strategy, Mr. Crowell said.

"If we can take care of the Realtor by taking care of their client, they will be more likely to sell another home for us," he said.

Keystone's full-time staff of 29 includes two customer-service representatives and five employees who do nothing but handle warranty service calls from buyers.

"They're very organized," Mr. Boatman said. "As they've grown, they've built their business as a business. A lot of builders just get a bigger pickup truck."

MANY BUILDERS come up through the construction trade. So did Mr. Crowell, but he also has an economics degree from the University of Georgia. He cut his teeth in the construction industry working as a project manager for Jake Ivey, president of J.W. Ivey & Associates.

Mr. Crowell said he and Mr. Ivey's son Mark, a college friend, did their share of grunt work as they oversaw company projects.

"We dug ditches, picked up trash, did a little bit of everything," Mr. Crowell said. "It was fun. It was very satisfying to build a home and have a happy customer living in it."

After three years with Ivey, Mr. Crowell decided to go to work for his father and try his hand at development.

It wasn't his cup of tea. The process of scouting property, acquiring it and then obtaining the necessary governmental permits was "too slow."

"Things happen in days in the building industry. In the development industry, things happen in years," he said.

He decided he wanted to get back into construction. In 1995, with a partial investment from his father, he founded Keystone, named after the central stone that allows an arch to support its own weight.

Mr. Crowell began assembling his management team and slowly eased into operation. In 1997, the company finished the year with 35 homes.

Two years later, Mr. Crowell hired a full-time chief operating officer, Mark Gilliam, a longtime certified public accountant who handled auditing for Crowell & Co.

Business began taking off in 2000 when the company built 165 homes, nearly double what was built the previous year.

THE ONLY RIVALS to Keystone's development network and deep pockets are Bill Beazley Homes Inc. and Nordahl Homes Inc., two builders with inhouse land-development and real estate sales operations.

Each company boasts extensive home-building operations, but they don't often step on one another's toes.

Bill Beazley Homes mainly builds houses priced at $175,000 and above. Nordahl focuses on starter homes at $100,000 or below. Keystone falls somewhere in between.

However, there is bristling when Keystone boasts that it's the market's "biggest builder" because the three companies are so close in size.

For one, there is a question as to what constitutes the "Augusta market." Augusta builders have only recently expanded into Aiken County. "A lot of their (Keystone's) homes are across the river," said Stephen Beazley, vice president of Bill Beazley Homes.

And there's the question over how size is determined: Is it unit sales or sales volume?

Nordahl sells more units than either of the other two, but its dollar volume is lower because its homes are priced lower. Bill Beazley sells higher-priced homes, but fewer of them. It's Keystone's combination of price and volume that puts it on top.

Mr. Crowell acknowledges that his marketing efforts may ruffle feathers in Augusta's historically staid home-building community. His main goal is to make Keystone a household name, a symbol of quality and service. "We just want to build a product that we know well," he said.

KEYSTONE HOMES LLC

LOCATION: 924 Stevens Creek Road, Augusta

PRODUCT: Residential construction

OPERATIONS: Builds homes in 13 neighborhoods throughout Richmond, Columbia and Aiken counties.

EMPLOYEES: 29

ANNUAL SALES: $28 million in 2002; $37 million projected in 2003

HISTORY: O. Lamar Crowell Jr. founded Keystone in 1995 after years of working for his father's land-development company and an Augusta home builder. The company's growth during the past three years has been fueled by low interest rates and market demand for the mid-priced homes in which Keystone specializes. This year the company became the market's largest home builder.


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